Algebra: Use it or lose it?

Yesterday, there was an interesting article in The Spectrum. The title of the article is "Algebra: Use it or lose it?", and the claim that is put forth by author Sarah Clark was that algebra teachers all over the world are lying when they tell students that algebra is important because they'll use it in their daily life.

Clark (32) describes herself as a non-traditional student:

(...) who hasn't taken an algebra class in 15 years. If, for the past 15 years, I had been using algebra in my everyday life, I would be blowing through my algebra homework with ease, thinking, "Hey! I just did this yesterday while I was washing laundry," or, "I'm so glad I've known this all along. I'd never be able to drive anywhere without it!" or "Wow! I just used this formula last week to calculate the ratio of jazz to classical music on my iPod.
Apparently, this is not what she has experienced. On the contrary, she has never experienced using algebra in her daily life, and she now finds herself uncapable of doing it. She also proposes an algebra revolution, where we should share the truth with every student who is struggling with algebra: these skills will not be crucial for you in adult life.

There are lots of things to comment on these statements, for sure. And lots of people did comment on it already (so be sure to read the comments below the article as well!). Deb Peterson at About.com made an interesting (external) comment to the article, that might be worth reading.

Myself, I think all these claims about how mathematics is/can be useful in your everyday life is a mixed bag. I think Clark's article illustrates a common issue as well: when teachers claim that mathematics is useful in everyday life, it might be their own everyday life they think of rather than their students'. (Lots of people have written about the connections with everyday life, and if you are interested, you might want to take a look at my own PhD thesis: Mathematics in everyday life: a study of beliefs and actions.)


Deb Peterson said...

Wow, Reidar! I love that you found this exchange and responded to it with a link to your thesis. I breezed through it, and it looks like Sarah was pretty much right, not that I condone her use of the term liar. I saw that only Jane really used real-life math in her classroom. I hope that someone comes up with the website you proposed. It's a great idea.

Nice to meet you. I studied Norwegian at St. Olaf College, but everyone in Norway answered me in English when I tried to speak! I have since forgotten almost all of it, but I still have my textbook! Another example of not using learning in real life.

All the best!

Deb Peterson
Guide to Continuing Education
About.com, part of The New York Times Company

Deb Peterson said...

Oh, I blogged about you today. :-)

Reidar said...

Hi Deb!

Thanks a lot for your comments, and thanks for taking interest in my thesis! Nice to hear that you have studied at St. Olaf College. I haven't been there myself, but I know a couple of people who studied there, and a former colleague has some relation to it as well.

Thanks for the post you made yesterday as well! I appreciate it :-)


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MariaD said...

I use algebraic metaphors in my everyday life. So do the rest of my family. But we have to be careful when talking to, ahem, "the general population" - these metaphors are far from common!

Here are a few examples:

- "Your growth of martial art skills is not going to be linear, duh."
- "The IQ of a committee is inversely proportional to the number of members."
- "Well, morality is more like a multi-dimensional continuum than a discrete set of points."
- "Just plug in this notion for that notion throughout your manuscript."

I think the humanity NEEDS to move to where algebra is an everyday occurrence, if we are to have any hope to survive the current set of problems the progress brought us. Governments recognize it and make curriculum decisions accordingly, but by the time it filters down to schools, the message turns from a plan of change into fantasies.

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sabera said...

Mathematics of Linear Algebra

Anonymous said...

I have been following your blog for sometime... though this is my first comment here.

Thought would drop by and send you this site for your opinion before I start using it with my class.

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